By Chris Kudialis | The Las Vegas Sun
What’s billed as a marijuana education conference next week by UNR is more like a state-sponsored, government-funded propaganda rally against legalization of the drug, say supporters of the state’s marijuana industry.
And they think that if UNR is allowed to put on the event, they deserve equal time.
The conference, titled “Marijuana Summit: What Health Care Professionals, Law Enforcement Officers, Employers and Members of the Court Need to Know,” features presenters such as Nevada Assemblyman Pat Hickey, an opponent of legalization efforts; Mel Pohl, medical director of the Las Vegas Recovery Center; and Jim Gerhardt, a Thornton, Colo., police sergeant who has traveled across the country over the past year cautioning legislators of the dangers of marijuana.
“If you legalize it, then you’re done,” Gerhardt told an audience in Iowa last year. “There is going to be no way to contain it.”
Join Together Northern Nevada, a non-profit substance abuse coalition that is hosting the conference, acknowledges that the purpose of the event is to discourage use of the drug. The summit, funded through federal grants from the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health, is being held in two sessions — Wednesday in Reno and Thursday at the Renaissance Hotel in Las Vegas. About 200 participants, primarily physicians, are expected to attend each session.
Critics say the summit, which focuses solely on the potential dangers of the drug and comes seven months before Nevada voters will decide a ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana, is an inappropriate use of federal funding. They question why the Division of Public and Behavioral Health, an arm of the state Department of Health and Human Services, would be involved, given that the division’s mission is to carry out public policy and not to sway public opinion on it. They also contend that UNR, which is sponsoring the event through its Continuing Medical Education department, is acting inappropriately by not presenting a rounded view of the subject.
“Nowhere in the lineup is there any mention of how marijuana can benefit veterans with PTSD,” said Nevada State Sen. Patricia Farley, who has advocated in favor of medical marijuana since taking office in 2014. “I’d just like to see something a little more fair and balanced.”
Phillip Peckman, president of the Nevada Cannabis Coalition and an investor in Las Vegas’ Thrive Cannabis Marketplace, said while Department of Health and Human Services director Richard Whitley has been “great” in working with medical marijuana businesses in Nevada, the department shouldn’t be using taxpayer dollars to fund a one-sided event.
“I’m all for education, but the question comes down to, ‘Should the division be funding this?’” Peckman said, “If that’s the case, we’d want them to sponsor a pro-marijuana panel, too.”
Whitley did not respond to multiple email and phone requests for comment. A spokeswoman from the Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment.
Las Vegas attorney Amanda Connor has long supported the medical marijuana cause in court. Although she wouldn’t comment specifically on next week’s summit, Connor said accuracy and fairness was “key” to holding a successful symposium.
“Knowledge is power, and it’s important to get information out to the public,” Connor said. “My only concern would be if that the information is accurate, and that’s why many people in the industry are concerned about this.”
Jennifer Snyder, executive director of Join Together Northern Nevada, said the event wouldn’t include any proponents of marijuana, because while medical marijuana is legal state-wide, the drug still is banned on a federal level.
Snyder said the coalition’s event did “not at all” involve the upcoming ballot measure. The coalition also hosts separate events discouraging the use of heroin and opioids, among other drugs, throughout the year, Snyder said.
Melissa Piasecki, executive associate dean of the medical school, said she had heard concerns about this week’s summit. But she said she was confident it deserved to be part of the school’s continuing education program.
Before receiving funding, such programs, proposed by community organizations like JTNN, are reviewed by the School of Medicine’s Continuing Education Review Board.
If the proposed programs fall under “Clinical diagnosis and management of disease and disorders,” “updates on the latest research and techniques,” “topics affecting the practice of medicine and health care delivery systems,” or “current issues affecting the practice of medicine in Nevada,” they’ll be approved for “continuing education credits,” Piasecki said.
Next week’s summit offers five hours of credits for drug and alcohol counselors, five hours for nurses and two credits for physicians in ethics, pain management and addiction care.